Holy hell, another Canadian woman who can write the boots off a snake. And another book I devoured in one sitting, although Cordelia Strube’s 360 pages were less gluttonous than the 600+ of Knausguaard. Beautifully written and structured, I closed the cover and felt like I was floating when it was over.
Broken into two sections, Before and After, with 60% of the book concentrated in the Before chapters that deal with Harriet, the on-the-go eleven-year-old who runs errands for the seniors who live in her building to earn money to run away with. She is a whirlwind of energy, painting, making sculpture with found objects (and dumpster diving for them), defending her one friend against the petty tyranny of popular kids, scheming to get her mom interested in a nice, employed guy instead of the deadbeat who lives with them (and who slaps Harriet on one of her last days), caring for her younger brother Irwin who was born with water on the brain and given up for hopeless by the doctors. Harriet also cares for the man who runs the corner store where she’s always fetching items for the old folk, ice cream, candy, chips from Mr. Hung of Hung Best. Her dad seems like a real loser, divorcing her mom when he realized he couldn’t handle a special needs child and then focusing only on long distance bicycling instead of paying child support.
The After section picks up the story when Irwin is fourteen years old and Harriet has been dead for years, having stepped off a balcony believing she could fly after taking some medication to ease her pain. I initially balked at having to suffer through the remaining pages, her ending could have been the perfect stopping point, but Strube pushes on and brings the story to a more complete ending, showing us the pain of losing Harriet, and how Irwin builds a life for himself out of his friends in the building, his mom, and his half-sister who looks just like Harriet. Irwin’s world is rocked when he finds out that Harriet was an organ donor, and he can’t handle thinking about pieces of her floating off to be rejected by other people’s bodies. In the end, his friend discovers a local artist whose work looks oddly similar to Harriet’s, somewhat neatly (too neatly) having been the recipient of her heart and lungs. In the end, Irwin and pals go to his art show, he sees Harriet in the artist’s eyes, they hug.